Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beer in Europe ~ le troisieme part

Before we move the blog along to other potentially broader, more important topics, I need to confess something.  This won't be easy.  I'm a little nervous about saying it.  It's rather un-American, actually.  Nevertheless, what must be said, well, must be said.

... oh... be still my bleating heart...
just look at all those fine examples of
Rocket Fuel waiting to be processed by
my kidneys...

I'm completely and utterly ignorant.

Yes.  There you have it.  It's true.  Absolutely.

I learned this recently when I attempted to plan a wee-trip to the Sublime State of Beervana.

Choosing between Amsterdam (or "Hamsterdam", as it suddenly becomes after a few pints of Rocket Fuel), Brussels, or Ghent, I wandered a few internet sites to try and sort out who serves the best examples of the Gods Own Beer.

... je pense que ton verre est presque vide...

Amsterdam looks interesting.  Hmmm... so does Brussels, actually.  I know nothing about Ghent, except it came up on a site that talked about taking a Beer Pilgrimage.

In similar time, Jude and I were watching BBC's Tudor Monastery Farm series.  In episode 3, Ruth Goodman very clearly states that what we call "ale" is a beverage sans houblon, without hops.  She goes on to say that "beer" starts out with "ale's" malts, but has hops (les houblon) added.

Huh.  There's something I never knew and quickly filed the bit of information away for retrieval the next morning. Remembering a bit I read on the Ghent tourist site I needed to more carefully consider something related. 

So... if one sausage goes well with beer...
um... what would four sausages go well with...?

Therein they say... the best tradition of Ghent going its own way, the beers they brew there are firmly hop-free. That's because the Gruut Brewery (found on the corner of the 'Grote Huidevettershoek', right in the middle of town) has gone decidedly 'old school' in its approach to beer and ales. Back in the Middle Ages, Ghent lay on an ancient beer-making fault-line, one with religious overtones, and which split the town in two.  

On the right bank of the river Lys, under Dutch influence, brewers used the (now-dominant) approach of flavouring beer with hops.

But on the left bank, which was ruled by a French-speaking elite, the brewers kept to the much older tradition of gruut beer-making. This used a whole range of local herbs to add flavour to malted beers, and avoided hops entirely...

...Gruut beer-makers used local herbs like mugwort, ground ivy, sweet gale, yarrow, and heather for bittering, and exotic spices like aniseed, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. The term ale actually referred exclusively to these gruut-flavoured beers, back in the day. The Catholic church cornered this market in brewing, exacting taxes on the gruut-spice mix. So when hops became a preferred beer-drinkers tipple,  and spread across northern Europe, the Church was not happy, and even banned the hop for a while...

Now there is a LOT of information I did not know.  First, that the Catholic church taxed gruut-spice mixes.  Second, well, in truth, I didn't even know gruut-spice mixes ever existed, let along used in the brewing of ale. Third, that Ghent, and not any village or ville in Strongly Catholic France, became the Cross-Over Point to what we now call "beer" (ie: mit hoppenschkruben, that dastardly plant that led to the Rise of Budwieser and Coors and Such, apparently, Protestant Abominations).

Off I went to research Gruut (or Gruit or Gruyt - depending on, I guess, how much you've had to drink).  No mention of the Catholic Church taxing Grutt and turning tastes toward the lesser cost hop-enhanced-bubbly-stuff was found.  To add to the confusion, I came across an internet site (which I can no longer find, not enough beer, I guess) that says Gruut was served by the Catholic Church to hospital patients and the poor.

Abbey beer... a big pot of mustard...
a Vast Plate of Frites and Sausages...
hereby one comes to the Gates of Heaven...

So... which was it?  A Highly Taxed (Taxing?) Flavoring for "ale" drunk by the Overly Wealthy Overtly Catholic Belgium Upper-Classes?  Or was it commonly handed over to the Great UnWashed to smooth out the edges of Week-Old Bread Crusts version of sterilized water?

Is this why Trappistes/Cisctercian/Benedictine/Carmelite Rocket Fuel come brewed sans houblon?  Are these considered Grutt ales?

Is there really any difference between "beer" and "ale"?  Do the old definitions still hold?

Can someone, anyone, a reader of this Humble Blog (run by Someone Completely Ignorant) perhaps, shed a wee-bit-o-light on the subject?  Inquiring Minds need to know.

Perhaps more importantly, does my favorite Suds Shoppe sell modern versions of Gruut/Gruyt/Gruit?  I'm fascinated.  What On Earth does it taste like?  Does this grant one Instant Access to those Catholic Pearly Gates upon leaving one's Mortal Remains behind?  Are my sins Forever Absolved?

Someone help me out here.  Please.

Passing through the Four States of Enlightenment

Friday, May 16, 2014

Beer in Europe ~ le deuxieme part

Just as in other parts of the Civilized World, there are two primary means of enjoying beer.

Frogpubs are everywhere around Paris
and serve their own unique version of
water labeled as beer.

The first is to buy beer and take it home.  You can enjoy the peace and solitude of your own space where you can watch a rugby match and the 'loo is just over there.  You're free to drink whatever you purchased in whatever quantities your bladder can handle.  The car keys can stay well hidden, too.

While my favorite beer shop in Paris is the Bootlegger, it is far from being the only place to score a tasty brew or two.  Here is a list of well-stocked places you can visit.  Perhaps there's a conveniently located Suds Shop near you?  And  should your French language skills fail you, many shop owners/employees know enough English to get you where you need to go.

La cave au bulles is a good place
to find the State of the Art in
French microbrews

The second way to enjoy CE beer is to visit a well stocked pub, bar, bistro, or brasserie.  If you choose wisely, chances are you'll have a great time.  You can have a nice meal as well as a view of Parisian street-life as it streams by your Inside or Outside table.

The only drawback to socializing in a place like this is the price of une pinte.  This is pronounced "une pant", though one guy keeps telling me it's pronounced "une peent".  Trousers or a proper English pint pronounced in a French accent?  You decide.  In any event, it can be difficult to find a Happy Hour 4Euro "pant".  Unhappy Hour prices seem to start at 6Euros and you may be scalped for as much as 12Euro in the touristy bits of la village.

For each their own reasons, I like to frequent deux endoits.

Le Comptoir Rugby Bar can be an interesting
place to meet the locals and to find out
about variable ETOH on-tap brew

The first is le comptoir rugby bar.  Their par pression beer list is short and their menu is limited to lunch items.  Yet I like this place as it's where I learned that the French (some French, at least) love the very Anglo-Saxon sport of rugby.  It's also where I learned about a beer that comes from Normandy.

The barman said the alcohol content varies in this specific brand of beer.  Top of the barrel pours are around 9 percent.  The bottom of the barrel pours cross over to 12 percent ETOH.  So I put him to the test before ordering "une pant."  He took a shot glass and poured a wee-bit, took a swallow, swished it about the gums and teeth, and pronounced it contained closer to 9 percent than to Absolute Rocket Fuel.

Knowing these kinds of Important Details could mean the difference between a pleasant "deux pant" Tilt To The Left (it's a socialist country, until the next elections at least) on the way home and an On All Fours Baby Crawl.  I'm sure they offer this in smaller glasses, but it never occurs to me to ask.

Falstaff has a long long list of beers
to choose from as well as a nice selection
of tasty goodies on tap

The second place I like is much better stocked than le comptoir and is a real blast to visit.  Falstaff is found at 42 Rue Montparnasse just around the corner from la gare Montparnasse.  Pay attention to the difference between Avenue M. and Rue M. and you should be able to sort out how to get there.  It's otherwise not entirely obvious.

Falstaff's par pression varieties span a nice broad range of tastes and styles.  Each month (I think that's it) they offer a different specialty tap.  This month it was a brown ale from some godforsakenuncivilizedplace.  I didn't try it, but I did have my fair share of Pilsner Urquell.  While the stuff you get in the States is Better than Bud, it's absolutely brilliant on tap here in Yerp.

They offer a Trappiste (of at least one variety), a couple blonds, a few brown ales, and Guinness.  The Belgium beers on tap will be Rocket Fuel.  You've been warned.

A look at Falstaff's tap, well, one half of
it at least.  It continues far to the right
of this image (which is where - malheureusement -
French politics is schwinging these days)

I used to love Guinness, oh, about 40 years ago.  It was exotic and dark and we used to joke it was actually well used motor oyle.  Times have changed and my palate changed with the times.  At 4percent ETOH, Guinness Ain't Squat.  But it is readily available around the city.

If what Falstaff has on tap fails to excite you, read their Beer By The Bottle list.  It's amazing.  They haul in stuff from literally around the world.  It's an outstanding selection and there's something for nearly everybody.

... AND... if it's Game Night and you're up for a Serious Event, they are happy to sell you 3 liters worth of Something Really Good.  I can't imagine being coherent after that much beer.  Perhaps your liver is made of Sterner Stuff than mine?  After all that fun it seems only sporting that you'd get to keep the glass too.

Beer from small Belgium brewers can
be wonderful.  Exercise well your taste-buds
Test early.  Test often.  Pray that the
National Front fails to win the
Presidency next election cycle.

Of course there is a nice list of places elsewhere where you can soak your liver and exercise your kidneys.  Failing local advice (this is a wine producing country, after all), such lists can be a Beer Lubber's Life Savior.

Should nothing tempt you, Belgium is only a quick TGV ride away.

In short, when it comes to beer all is not bleak in Paris.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Beer in Europe

During our short return to the States I had the pleasure of remembering many of the local microbrew on offer. 

Guiness Stout
complete with Irish cloverleaf

I was instantly reminded how different beer is there.

I would like to encourage readers to perform their own deep research on the topic.  Each of us have different tastes and prefer different qualities in a good brew.  Acquiring a PhD on the topic requires many many years of careful, faithful, personal research.  As a short-cut, perhaps I could offer a few thoughts based on my own experience while living in Paris?

Some Americans get all misty-eyed at the thought of yellow colored low ETOH liquid that's served in Southern Germany around Oktoberfest.  If that's your pleasure, you know when and where to go.  The Germans will no doubt happily embrace your open wallet and introduce you to their Party Tent where the fluids flow well into the night.  Personally, better stuff comes from the former Czech Republics and England.

With this kind of Deep Beer history 
things are bound to be quite tasty.

Up until rather recently the only French beers to be found came from the former German temporarily held (in Geologic Time) territories of the Alsace region.  Karlsberg, 1664, and Heineken all brew in this part of this often fought-over part of the world.  It's strange to think that German laws are still followed in this part of France.  If this kind of mass-produced beer often finds it's way into your mug, then all is right with the world and you'll be happy to know these yellow-colored waters are found partout France.  Any pub, bar, brasserie, or cafe will likely have it on tap.  To my palate, again, better stuff comes from the former Czech Republics and England.

It took a long conversation with a Parisian (ne Normand) beer merchant to sort out the how's and why's of the current (woeful) French Brew Situation.  It seems that when the peasants had more than a few heads rolling at their feet during the Terror that just about anyone who knew how to make a decent beer packed up and high-tailed it out of Dodge toute de suite!  Carmelites, Benedictines, Cistercians, and Trappistes each took what the knew and headed for more religiously tolerant parts of Europe just across a conveniently close border.  This is why the best Continental Brew still comes from Belgium and the Netherlands.

Heaven's Own Gates 
Beer Inside

Americans have improvised on a theme of good, drinkable, fairly low alcohol content (3 to 6 percent ETOH) English beers.  A friend who lives there (in Merry 'Ol, that is) suggested that the English keep the alcohol content deliberately low so that a person can enjoy several in an evening without the need of a wheelchair later.  Even Guiness Stout on tap around these parts is only 4.5percent ETOH.

Porter (one of my favorite), Stout (yum!), English (that's the word!) Session Beers, Amber (alert!) Ale, Brown Ale, and Lager (to take the edge off the Summer Heat).  These were some of my favorite styles.  Brewers in Portland, Oregon make great versions of each of these.  The place is called Beervana for a reason.

On the European Continent things are for the most part done differently.  If you're only used to what happens in England and the Land of the Free the situation can be more than a little confusing.  Beer is not often labeled by style so it can be difficult to know what you're getting into.  They can talk about a blond or a brown, but you have no idea whether something is a light on the palate and drinkable or if it is more suitable for delivering a Good Night Y'all Knockout Blow around Vespers... and if you happen upon a Lambic for the first time your life, hold on to your hat.  It's nothing like you'll ever have expected out of something stamped with the word "Beer" on the bottle.

Monk's Truth in Advertising ~ it
really is the Peace of God.  
Brilliant stuff, this.

Alcohol content begins at 7 percent for a low-end supermarket shelved triple fermented beer to upwards of 15 percent around the winter holidays in what are called Winter Warmers.  Standard commonly available quadruple fermented beers average 10 to 12 percent ETOH year round.  Many beers are not strongly hopped, though if you look carefully, the Continental Europeans will brew a strong beer with flavors similar to an American IPA.  Malts tend to be predominant and many beers taste slightly to the side of sweet.

Only recently have the French started to experiment with small batch brewing.  If you head down to la cave au bulles deep in the Marais you will find the samples of the current trends in French beer production.  Not that the State of the Art as practiced in France hasn't stirred more than a few pots to full boil.  I've heard there is something of a lutte between traditionalists and la nouvelle vagueLa lutte is over how much and how strong a hop _should_ be used.  I'm not sure who's winning, but the fight has more than a few amusing twists to it.

Monks are not the only people who
can brew a wonderful beer.  
Straffe H. proves the point.

Until the French get things going again, my head turns toward Belgium and the Netherlands.  Frequently I am heard when raising my mug en demandant encore de la biere belge, svp!  For this simple reason I frequent a small beer merchant who's long running establishment (c1976 - by some accounts it's the oldest continually operating beer shop in Paris).  It's only a 15 minutes hike from the apartment with M. Caddy in tow.

The Bootlegger is Heaven on Earth.  It's a temple devoted to Rocket Fuel... er... Great Tasting Beer belge.  One and a half walls are devoted to brew emanating from that single small mosquito infested part of the world.  Another wall stocks German, Scots, English, Irish, American, and Czech beers.  Yet another wall holds only Seriously Large Bottles of biere belge.

Rocket Fuel disguised as beer

This should suffice to set a rickety foundation for exploring Continental Europe's tastes in beer.

Next I will share a personal well-tested ever evolving hopefully improving always applied technique for performing your own Boots On The Ground beer research in bars and brasseries.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reentry after our Plan B visit to the states...

I see that life is experience.  One after another.  How we judge those experiences is the means we humans use to say something is "good" or "bad".  Without that filter of judgement, things simply are as they are.

Returning to the US to clear out our storage unit was at times emotionally difficult.  We were constantly reminded that our life there had been good.  Our American friends are kind, warm people, open-hearted people.  The trappings of Middle Class Success were lovely and felt good. 

When we rolled out one of the carpets I'd purchased on a business trip to India, our hearts caught in our throats.  When our friends, Ralph and Carol, rolled up with a van to help us move household items to new homes, it was difficult to not be overwhelmed with feelings of gratefulness.

So many things were taking place all at the same time that Jude misplaced her drivers license.  There were so many distractions.  We called around to see if someone found it.  No one had.  Add to this that big life events that were taking place all around us in the forms of death and illness.  At times I thought "this is too much to deal with all at once." 

We'd collapse into bed every night and straight into Morpheus' arms.

I think we did well to finish as much as we did in the short time we had.  The only things left to deal with are some of my photographic negatives and prints.  These my father kindly offered to store for me until I decide what to do with them.  Fortunately there isn't much to face.  I pruned my old materials very heavily before sending what was left off to my father.

Our return flights went well.  We were exhausted but only a little blurry-eyed when we landed in France.

Just as when we moved here, we hauled five large suitcases, one small suitcase, and three over the shoulder carry-ons.  Our lives have slimmed to that.  Not much when we think about all the years, all the work, all the corporate life spent on the job, and all the things we'd acquired.

The whole time I'd not thought a lot about Paris.  It's strange, actually.  Being back in Portland felt to me like living inside a very long, realistic dream.  The experience was a little hazy around the edges.  Memories of what was where and who did what, where, and why returned naturally.  The warmth and comfort of the familiar rounded out the dream-like state.

The taxi stand at Charles de Gaul is quick and efficient.  We soon had a vehicle large enough to hold our baggage.  Giving the driver our address in a language we'd not spoken in three weeks was "interesting" to hear the sound of.  Off we went.

I knew what we were facing shortly after our return and felt the Fun Was Not Yet Over.  We had translated documents to retrieve.  We had an appointment to face the Prefecture de Police in an effort to renew our visas.  We hoped l'Assurance Maladie (the French healthcare group called CMU) had replied to our request to pay the French State for health insurance.  We knew that CMU would be asking for more information.  All these things in a language we have yet to "master."  I felt it would take a Sharp Mind to Detail to successfully complete these tasks.

More duty and action awaited us.

Our taxi sped toward le peripherique, the ring road that holds Paris to it's ancient boundaries.  We entered through la porte de la chapelle and followed le peripherique toward the 15eme arrondisement.
On the other side of la porte lay one of the many symbols of Paris.  Seeing it I instantly felt, remembered, and knew why we moved to France. Sitting high on a hill, Sacre Coeur pierced the sky.

It was good to be home.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clearing out Plan B ...

It's been two years since leaving the US to live in Paris.

Ahead of quitting America, my wife and I put into storage enough furniture and household items to populate a small apartment.  If Europe did not work out, we wanted somewhere to "land" while we figured out our next moves.

Our new lives across the sea are working out better than we ever dared to dream.  It was time to find new homes for the things we left behind.

Travel is seldom easy and this trip was no different.  We experienced unexpected "head winds".  That is to say, life presented us with a few additional challenges along the way.

As we were about to leave France, we heard that one of the creative people we'd worked with over the years had died.  Burke Biggler was a talented performer.  He'd hosted and acted in many of Portland's best cabaret and circus events.

Jude got food poisoned from our "leaving for America" dinner.  She was ill all night and boarded the aircraft tired and weak.  Once back in the States, she then came down with a horrid Norovirus.  She was laid low for three days and it took a long time to fully recover.

A couple days into our trip we heard from a friend that his wife was in ER.  The doctors weren't sure what was wrong.  All anyone knew was that big doses of morphine failed to touch the pain.  Our friends were in and out of ER over the course of our stay and it was difficult to hear little had changed for the better.

At nearly the same time a friend's mother passed away.  While her mothers death was expected, it wasn't very pleasant news.  We felt a growing sense of sadness at all that was taking place around us.

For me, I had to decide what to do with 40 years of personal photography materials.  Prints, hand-bound books, and a stack of negatives all needed to be dealt with.  There's no way to plan for how a person might feel at seeing a big part of their life destined for a recycling bin.

Fortunately, all was not bleak and terrible.  Quite the contrary, in fact.

Our good friends of many years Ralph and Carol helped us move mountains of stuff.  They gave their time and talent to helping us sort, sell, and send to Goodwill our "Plan B" things.  Ralph has a decent job, yet he took time off to give us a hand and to rent a UHaul van so some of our things could be moved and delivered.  In exchange for their time and attention, we got to promise to come back to the States to help them do the same thing.  We're not sure if nor when, but we're hoping that they'll move to Europe, too. The sooner the better, right?

Jude and I were able to visit with many other friends and to spend time "catching up."  Lunches and dinners were daily filled with these kinds of visits.  Early in our final week my father and brothers came up to pick up a few things, make a delivery of one of my really big bird lenses, and to visit.  They gamely went to dinner with Jude and I and a different set of friends each night.

There were a few people I would have loved to have gotten together with, but for various reasons, we weren't able to connect with.  Jude and I cancelled a dinner with friends from our classes at the Alliance Francaise after we'd "hit the wall" after all we'd done.  I wasn't able to find time to get with my photographer friends Ted Mishima and Ray Bidegain.  We regret these "misses".

Walking into ProPhoto Supply with Don (a software engineering colleague and friend of mine) we struck up a conversation with Dave Cleary who asked where I'd been for two years.  After lunch, Don took me down to the new steamlocomotive shed to have a look-see.  The moment I spied Terry Thompson (a SPS700 crew-member) he asked where I'd been.  When Jude and I visit People's Food Coop, it was good to smell familiar organic earthy smells and to hug and talk with some of the most wonderful people on planet earth who work there.

Many of our conversations seemed to pick up right where we'd left off.  In this way it was very comfortable to be back in our old home town.  In fact it was good to try some great Deschutes Brewery Black Butte Porter and remember some of the things that made our old home town so good to live in.

Ralph reminded us that all the reasons we left remain valid reasons to not come back.  There is an abundance of truth in this.  It was too easy to slip back into an old familiar routine.

US politics are so screwed up that no lasting good is ever passed on to We the People.  Physical violence in America is shockingly close, every where, and at any moment.  The state of the food system is broken in too many unhealthy ways. Healthcare in the US is insanely expensive.  

Our storage unit is now empty.  The keys have been handed over.  Our tearful good-byes have been said.

It's a little too early to have much perspective on what we just finalized, but one thing I know is that our US friends and family will remain our friends and family, no matter where we live. 

Ian may be in the former Czech Republics in June.  Bill and his wife will be in the south of France in late June/early July.  Miz Kitty may come to Scotland in the Fall.  Grace and Micha are taking French language lessons.  A visit Dave and Mary and Martin in Merry 'Ol England is in order.  We need to visit our first Paris apartment landlords near Saint Malo.  Jennifer needs to be paid a visit in Girona, Spain.  My father and one of my brothers will be back in 2015.  My father may come over with my other brother in 2016.

Yes, some very heavy and difficult work has been completed.